Form before Function – Grimm-Zentrum

by Willa Middaugh

Max Dudler’s 2009 Jakob-und-Wilhem-Grimm-Zentrum Bibliothek is a cleanly expressed, lovely building that makes good use of its limited site and access to light but ultimately fails as an easily accessible space. The building is set back from the tracks of the nearby S-Bahn, ensuring greater quiet within and establishing a small plaza without that extend very nearly to the base of the tracks. It’s a well-used space; even under dreadful weather students are chatting and smoking, enjoying a cup of coffee or a rushed bite between classes. The parallel placement of these tracks affords a tantalizing peek inside when riding by.

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Universitätsbibliothek - Grimm-Zentrum

Foto: Matthias Heyde | Universitätsbibliothek

I am reminded, simultaneously, of the cool rationality of both prison architecture and early corporate modernism, as if Mr Dudler looked to both San Quentin and the Seagram building for inspiration. The building looks like a precious box of glass, clad in a protective exoskeleton of polished marble. Ample skylights above the central reading room let in natural light from above, and side windows provide students sitting in the outer ring of cubbies a good view out to the city as well as a reciprocal look into the passing S-Bahn. At night, especially from afar, the library looks like it glows. The distance also lends the windows a narrowness that isn’t apparent up close; their narrowness within the marble massing turns them to archer’s slits and the elegant stone façade to a battlement. This library is no cathedral of learning, as the old adage goes, but rather a fortress.

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Universitätsbibliothek - Grimm-Zentrum

Foto: Matthias Heyde | Universitätsbibliothek

And, like any fortress, the Grimm-Zentrum is preoccupied with keeping people out. There is always the looming sensation of not belonging, of trespassing in a world where you are neither welcome nor a part of. It is a beautiful, aesthetic space that is maddeningly difficult to use. The accessibility of the library, which should be or paramount importance – what good is a library, after all, when no one reads the books – plays second fiddle to the aesthetic intent of the architect. There are good points to the design – the soaring airy-yet-cozy reading room and the warmth and richness of the wood detailing. The books are well organized and beautifully displayed but difficult to access, as the stakes are narrowly spaced and also serve as the walkways to and from the center reading room. That’s indicative of the library experience at large. Due to a mandatory use policy on a chronically short supply of lockers, paired with a security system that rivals the airport in terms of strictness, accomplishing normal, quotidian student tasks like checking out books or printing papers simply isn’t possible within a remotely timely manner.

Above all, there is joy and promise to be had in libraries. They should foster wonder at the world and its intricacies, but they should also remind the user, the patron, to make use of their accumulated wealth. Libraries are collective in nature, serving as repository of books and knowledge, but equally crucially as community spaces. In the perfection of form, the Grimm Zentrum has neglected to pay due heed to this balance of functions.

The Grimm Zentrum is lofty in its elocution, a grand statement piece of a building, and yet perhaps Max Dudler’s success is also his downfall. With fewer users, that is, if the building were less popular, the building would be far more usable. Paradoxically, the better the building, the worse the experience.

For all this, it’s becoming a secondary city icon, like the Oberbaumbrücke – a building representative of and unique to Berlin, but not obvious to the scale of the Fernsehturm or Brandenburger Tor. Location scouts are taking notice, and I’ve seen it crop up in a handful of movies and shows. Most recently it starred the American show Sense8 as the silent but stunning back drop to a clandestine, nerve-wracking appraisal of fenced diamonds. The location was perfect for the shot. The warmth of the reading room and the hushed atmosphere set the scene. Where better to traffic in stolen precious stones than in a jewelry-box like building? Something as audacious as a diamond appraisal could very well have happened in these halls (this being Berlin, after all, and students being poor). The probability of snaking the diamonds through security in the plastic totes without questioning, in coats, no less, and finding a secluded spot for three? Fiction after all.

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Foto: Matthias Heyde | Universitätsbibliothek

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